Friday, February 3, 2012

Women in Ministry (Part II): It's not about being a liberal or conservative

Liberal. In my part of the country, that's a bad word. Politically, if you call someone a liberal, you might as well be calling them a communist (Even the Democrats here try to avoid being called liberals!). Theologically the terms mean something different than they do in the political arena, but the term still means something negative to many of my baptist friends. In Baptist circles (and other evangelical traditions, as well), calling someone a theological liberal is the equivalent of questioning their commitment to the Bible and even their commitment to Christ. I'm not saying that I agree with the use of the word liberal as an epithet. I for one don't consider liberals enemies, even if I disagree with them on a number of issues. I'm simply explaining how the word is used in my part of the world.

I make this point for this simple fact: when someone (like myself) begins to advocate for women in ministry, many others will immediately begin accusing them of being a liberal. That's a serious accusation in the circles I operate in and can cost people their jobs and destroy their ministries. The threat of these accusations keeps many people (both lay and clergy) from voicing their support for women in ministry even though their convictions lead them in that direction.  The atrocity of this kind of criticism is not simply that it's often mean-spirited and damaging to the body of Christ. The trouble is that such accusations are often patently untrue. A person can be theologically conservative and a Christian who supports women in ministry. 

Take for instance, the many charismatic churches that have conservative theology and yet allow women to participate in all levels of ministry. The Salvation Army and Nazarene churches, both conservative denominations, also ordain women to the ministry. In the last few decades many evangelical churches have also begun to incorporate women into all aspects of church life. Conservative preachers like Haddon Robinson, former president of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, have made the case for women in ministry. Heroes of Baptist life like Frank Pollard have, as well. Conservative scholars like Gordon Fee, F.F. Bruce, even Millard Erickson (Southern Baptist), have advocated for the ordination of women.

Now, I know that for every name that I throw out there will be someone who says, "Yeah, but that person isn't a real conservative." What those people mean is that these names don't fit their definition of what a conservative is supposed to look like (even though, all of the names listed above would be considered conservatives to many, many people).  This leads me to my bigger frustration with this issue. While I fully believe that you can be conservative theologically and support women in the ministry, I also believe the terms liberal and conservative have limited usefulness in many of our discussions. The reason is simple: nobody agrees on what these terms mean. When you think about it, how could they? Life is not made up of just one issue. It's made up of any number of issues. And there are a large number of ways to arrange one's beliefs. As my professor Roger Olson wrote recently on his blog, "There’s no 'right' or 'left' or 'middle.' There’s just (limited) variety."

There was a time that I would proudly boast of being a conservative. No more. That's not because I consider myself a liberal. I don't (but I do count both self-described liberals and self-described conservatives as my friends). No, the reason I don't worry about touting my conservative credentials is because I find such a term almost useless in describing what I think almost all of us are attempting to do - follow Jesus not liberally or conservatively but faithfully. How each of us works that out will definitely look a little different from one another. That's no reason to go slandering one another as being less than faithful.

For now, we all see through the glass darkly, but one day . . .


If you're interested in a more in-depth look at the uselessness of the left-middle-right spectrum in the field of theology, check out Dr. Roger Olson's blog post "On tossing out the 'right-middle-left' spectrum."